“Belleville” at the New York Theatre Workshop (Closed April 14, 2013)

March 4, 2013 | Off-Broadway | Tags:
Written by Amy Herzog
Directed by Anne Kauffman
Reviewed by David Roberts, Theatre Reviews Limited

“Homey: The boys, the ones you not only like, but trust. Term of endearment towards another signifying closeness. Examples: You homeys got my back, right? Hey, you will always be my homey.” (Urban Dictionary)

Star-crossed homeys Abby (Maria Dizzia) and Zack (Greg Keller) transfer their struggling marriage of five years from the United States to Belleville, a colorful multi-ethnic neighborhood of Paris known for its community of artists and musicians and its leftist political base, believing Paris will work its fabled charms and provide a healing balm for the couple’s troubled waters. In the opening scene, Zach tells his French-Senegalese landlord Alioune that he believed “Paris [would be] a cure for all [Abby’s] whatever.”

Renting an apartment in Belleville from French-Senegalese couple Alioune (Phillip James Brannon) and Amina (Pascale Armand), Zach and Abby have found work to pay the rent and enjoy the life of Paris: Abby (an actor) teaches Yoga and Zach (ostensibly) is assigned to work on AIDS research through Doctors Without Borders.

In the same opening scene (which consumes a full 37% of the script), Zach provides the exposition needed to understand how the couple has gotten to the point of crisis. They have not only fallen out of love: Zach and Abby have fallen out of synch, out of trust, out of hopefulness, and completely out sorts. Abby’s “whatever” is a dose of chronic depression following her mother’s death and an abusive nature which she unleashes on Zack mercilessly. Zach’s “whatever” is a drug-dependent existence and a dangerous co-dependent relationship with Abby. Their mutual “whatever” is a marriage which has fallen into disrepair, including a deep-seated mistrust of one another, and a falling out of love of epic proportions. It could easily be said that these lovers despise one another. What Abby’s sees as a period of transition is in fact a dead end. Zach did not graduate medical school: he is not on an assignment through Doctors Without Borders. And, jobless, Zach has not paid the rent in four months.

Abby and Zach’s conflicts drive a plot that not only chronicles the dissolution of a relationship, but also the dissolution of the mental stability of each of these characters and the melting of whatever is left of their moral and emotional cores. After one of the couple’s many disagreements (with Abby screaming and Zack complicit and apologetic), Abby attacks Zack with this fusillade: “That! Is the problem! Do you see that? Do you see how completely impossible you have made it for me to love you when you lack. Any. Actual. Core?” After a pause, Zach replies coldly. “I think if you took a really good look. Abby. You’d see that there are some things about you that are pretty hard to love, but I figured out how to do it anyway.”

In a series of scenes in and out of the bathroom, the kitchen, and the bedroom (tropes for the windmills of the couple’s collective mind), Abby and Zach’s emotional cores and their ego strengths disintegrate. A large butcher knife and a pair sacred cell phones become characters which foreshadow destruction and death and more. And this is the brilliance of Amy Herzog’s script. “Belleville” is less a psychological thriller and far more an engaging dramatic documentation of the psychosocial matrix of a couple, the nation from which they come, and even (perhaps) the global ennui encroaching on humanity’s future. Abby is right: we are “strangers in a strange land” (Robert Heinlein and Moses before him) and we all had better soon grock what’s “slouching toward Bethlehem” (go ask William Butler Yeats).

Oddly enough, Abby’s move to find healing (after the couple decides it best to return home) meets with a downturn in Zach’s psycho-emotional state. As Abby secludes herself in the bedroom to talk to her father (promising Zach she “wouldn’t tell him anything” about their conflicts), Zach retrieves the butcher knife from the kitchen, a chair from the table, enters the bathroom, barricades himself in and commits the act Abby twice was unable to complete: he commits suicide. Unable to enter the bathroom to confirm her fear, Abby backs away from the door, horrified, lucid telling her father in their continuing cell call, “Daddy, I need your help. I need you to come get me.” In the script, there is not a direction for Abby to run from the apartment; however, in the stage performance, Abby quickly exits the apartment adding to the psychological tension of the play.

The counterpoint of Zach’s suicide and Abby’s undetermined missing status (did she, too commit suicide or did she go somewhere to wait for her father’s arrival, or some other possibility?) is Alioune and Amina’s relationship and puzzlement about Zack and Abby’s somewhat puzzling weltanschauung. This French-Senegalese couple often converse in hushed French which one would assume means that what they are saying is unimportant. This is a serious flaw in Herzog’s script for what they say is often terribly important. For example, at one point Amina tells Alioune she would “kill him” if he kept drugs in their home. And in the last scene as the landlords clean up the blood and detritus of their tenants (which still does not work to support the play as a whole), the following exchange occurs in inaudible French:

ALIOUNE: Sorry, Amina. (She stops scrubbing.) I’m sorry.
AMINA: Yes, of course. (Pause) Okay. This is not a disaster.
ALIOUNE (laughing: slightly) Not?
AMINA: Actually, no. (She gives him a small, forgiving smile.) Let’s go. We have many things to do. (They return to Their Work. Very slowly, the lights fade.)

Not a disaster? Would this be considered a time for forgiving smiles? What’s to be forgiven and what’s to be sorry for? Zach is dead. Abby has fled with her father to America, still psychotic, still abusive. Or perhaps Abby, too, is dead. This somewhat bizarre ending needs to be revisited by the playwright and the creative team and they need to fashion a resolution more satisfying to an English-speaking audience and one more responsible to the play as a whole. That said, “Belleville” is brilliant and engaging; the actors excel in bringing their characters and conflicts to the stage under the able direction of Anne Kauffman; and Julia C. Lee’s set and Ben Stanton’s lighting give the actors the space and time they need to be who they need to be. Other than the end of the play, it doesn’t get much better than that: go see and enter the conversation.